Friday, May 27, 2011

I SPIT ON YOUR REMAKE

One of my biggest pet peeves with horror movies these days is that there are too many remakes. I know all the reasons that remakes get greenlit, but most of the justifications are pure bunk.

Studio execs will tell you that it’s smart business to remake an existing property rather than create a new one because it costs less to reboot an already familiar ‘brand.’ Familiar with whom? I buy that argument if we’re talking sequels. Hence, we get four PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies in less than a decade. But pray tell how does that argument work when it comes to remaking a movie whose brand has been dormant for 30 years or more? The original THE HILLS HAVE EYES was made in 1977. The remake came out in 2006. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was made in 1972. Its remake came out in 2009. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE opened in 1983, while its remake opened just this last fall. Do the movie studios really expect those films to have any equity with a new group of teens, two generations removed? Seriously, there is “old school” and then there is that which seems more like “your grandfather’s automobile.”
Leatherface goes on a rampage in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
The powers-that-be will also tell you that modern horror films allow for better production values and that means a cheap looking film from yesteryear gets the chance to be made the way it should have been done, with a proper budget. But in the case of horror, sometimes the cruder films are actually the more powerful ones. Case in point, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE from 1974. True, it can’t hold a candle to the bigger-budgeted production values of its 2003 remake. And lead actress Jessica Biel is a comely presence that the original didn’t have. But once you take a look at the cheapo original you’ll realize that its spotty production values actually work in its favor. The shoestring budget gives it the look of a documentary and that effectively makes it seem real. And doesn’t the more realistic something appears to be render it all the more frightening? As palpably thrilling as Miss Biel is, when it comes to horror, palpable scares are what we’re really after.
The shocking poster for I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1983)
Sometimes political correctness is used as justification for a remake. When the horror exploitation film I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE came out it in 1983 it was actually a re-release. It had originally opened in 1978 under the woefully wrong title of DAY OF THE WOMAN and appropriately found no audience. At the time of its creation, filmmaker Mier Zarchi thought he was doing the women’s liberation movement proud by having his female protagonist vengefully turn the tables on her rapists with equal violence. The audiences didn’t see it that way. They saw it as two wrongs not coming very close to making a right. 
The original DAY OF THE WOMAN poster (1978)
Thus, years later the distributors scrapped the original title and noble intentions altogether and marketed it as exploitative trash, ripe for the grindhouse. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was a critic who found its violence and faux feministic posturing so reprehensible that he famously described it as "a vile bag of garbage...without a shred of artistic distinction.” If memory serves, he and Gene Siskel did an entire half hour of their review program devoted to ripping its many faults. So a remake of this movie might be worth the trouble, wouldn’t you think? A new version could find a more measured tone, a more nuanced execution perhaps, and stand as the perfect example of why this story needed to be redone. Unfortunately the remake was none of those things. Roger Ebert said it was merely “a despicable remake of the despicable 1978 original” and gave it zero stars. And its weak box office suggested that the reasoning behind this remake wasn’t correct either, political or otherwise. (BTW, I have seen both versions and they are both awful. If that’s entertainment, you’re a masochist.)
 
Foreign films always get remade because the argument is that American audiences don’t go to the cinema to read. There is sad truth in that statement. Rarely do subtitled films do boffo box office here. (Even last year’s hugely popular Swedish thriller THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO only made 10 million in the USA. Compare that to something like IRON MAN 2. It was only so-so yet that sequel raked in 312 million bucks in American theaters.) Foreign horror gets remade because of that line of thinking as well. And sometimes, surprisingly, the remake is almost as good or in a few cases, even better. 2002’s THE RING is one such example. The American remake of the runaway hit Japanese horror tale RINGU (1998) was actually an improvement. Our version had better pacing, more empathetic characters (Gotta love Naomi Watts!) and even had a scarier 'cursed' home video at the core of its story. (It's featured above in a clip from the remake.) But this is the exception, not the rule.  One only has to rent the bland SHUTTER (2008) and THE GRUDGE (2004) to realize that their foreign originals were infinitely superior. That’s what you're up against when you remake such horror classics.

The main reason horror elicits so many remakes is due to the simple truth that horror films don’t cost a lot to make and almost always turn a profit. And yet while most horror remakes have done good business none have exactly become sensations like their original source material either. Is director Wes Craven glad that his remake of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT allowed him to make the film he couldn’t due to budget restrictions thirty years ago? Of course. Are we? I’m not so sure. I’d rather see that money used for something fresher, wouldn’t you? Call it idealism, but I don’t see a lot of great reasons to remake most horror films, particularly the legends, even if their budgets were pathetically paltry like the original LAST HOUSE.
Roddy McDowall as the great vampire hunter in FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)
One of my favorite horror movies of all time is 1985’s FRIGHT NIGHT, and its remake is about to open later this summer. The original story concerned a teenage boy who realizes his new neighbor is a vampire. It was clever, scary as hell and funny too, with a terrific cast headed by William Ragsdale, Chris Sarandon and the elegant Roddy McDowall. I must tell you the trailer for the remake looks fantastic! I can already see that it’s quite similar but also different. Certain ideas have been updated and modernized, and it looks like every dollar is there on the screen. Still, it appears it retains many of the original’s great ideas and charms. So see, despite all my bellyaching, I’ve just given some Hollywood horror exec reason to sleep quite well tonight. But I hope he has nightmares, because most of the horror remakes being served up frankly aren’t worth my spit.

3 comments:

  1. Speaking of remakes, I saw one this weekend which wasn't a horror movie per say, but it's total lack of creativity made me fearful for the state of original thought in Hollywood. The movie was THE HANGOVER 2 and while it's billed as a sequel it is really a virtual scene-by-scene remake of the first one. Only this one takes place in Thailand. Every plot point and beloved gag from the first movie is essentially rehashed here. It is all so familiar and lacking in surprise that it became an utter bore. Now if I could just wake up tomorrow morning and discover that I've forgotten the whole experience...

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  2. They aren’t even done counting the hundreds of millions from last weekend...and now comes word of yet another blackout in the works for the soon-to-be-known Hangover Trilogy. They are on a bender with this franchise.

    The first one was funny; wringing more ticket sales out of the original idea with a thinly-veiled remake is just a lack of creativity. Or maybe it’s greed?

    It’s pretty much a done deal, question is, will the plot remain the same for yet a third time? If so, hand me some tracing paper and I can write it. If not, can they try to make it funnier than the first one? Perhaps Hangover 3-D?

    Cynical, I know. My point is, sequels should rival the original. Often aspired to, but seldom achieved. But if we keep buying, they’ll keep milking the cash cows till they bleed. And audiences, you’ll keep getting what you pay for.

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  3. Fan With No Name, you made me LOL with your comment about using tracing paper to write the third one! And unfortunately I'm one of those moviegoers who encouraged the filmmakers to greenlight that third one as I was there catching the second one on its record-breaking weekend. (Sorry. My bad.)

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